It was an age where women couldn’t vote, non-whites rarely went to school, and the American government said Native Americans weren’t citizens. The odds were against Susan LaFlesche Picotte. Some of her own people rejected her learning and caregiving. But she persisted. She earned a degree in medicine and worked tirelessly to improve her tribe’s health and welfare. Read about the amazing first Native American woman doctor and her people.
Adapt to Survive
Omaha Chief Big Elk visited Washington D.C. in 1837. There he saw a coming flood that would wipe out his people. He warned them they needed to adapt to survive.
He chose a man with a similar vision to succeed him as chief of the Omaha Tribe. Joseph La Flesche, Susan’s father, was of French and Indian descent.
Chief Joseph LaFlesche (Iron Eyes) was one of the seven Omaha chiefs who signed treaties ceding over 90% of the tribe’s land to the U.S. government in 1854.
Chief LaFlesche made a bold push for assimilation. But not everyone in the tribe wanted to assimilate. The tribe split into two parties.
It is either civilization or extermination.Chief LaFlesche
The Young Men’s Party built log cabins rather than teepees, laid out roads, and individual farming parcels.
The Chief’s Party remained loyal to traditional ways and medicine men and wouldn’t budge. They called the village of log cabins, “The Village of the Make-Believe White Men.”
On June 17, 1865, Susan was born the youngest of three daughters to Chief LaFlesche and his wife Mary, (One Woman).
She grew up in a log cabin in the Village of the Make-Believe White Men. Her parents taught her native traditions and heritage. But they refused a tribal name and tribal markings for her.
At eight, Susan stayed at the bedside of an elderly woman in agonizing pain. They sent a messenger for the white agency doctor four times. Each time the doctor promised he’d come soon, but he never did. The woman died. It was an episode that affected Susan for the rest of her life.
“Do you always want to be simply called those Indians, or do you want to go to school and be somebody in the world?”Chief Joseph La Flesche
Susan attended the Mission School on the Omaha Reservation until she was fourteen.
Then she was sent to the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in New Jersey. At seventeen, she returned home and taught at the Quaker Mission School for two years. While working there she met and cared for the ethnologist, Alice Fletcher. Fletcher encouraged her to go back east and get a medical degree.
And Susan did. In 1884, she enrolled at the Hampton Institute, one of the nation’s first and finest schools of higher education for non-white students. The resident physician there, Martha Waldron, was a graduate of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP). Waldon encouraged Susan to apply to WMCP. Alice Fletcher helped Susan secure scholarship funds from the U.S. Office of Indian Affairs and Connecticut Indian Association, a branch of the Women’s National Indian Association.
We who are educated have to be pioneers of Indian civilization. The white people have reached a high standard of civilization, but how many years has it taken them? We are only beginning; so do not try to put us down, but help us to climb higher. Give us a chance.Susan La Flesche, Hampton graduation speech
Susan finished WMCP’s three year program in two years. She graduated at the top of her class of thirty-six people. After a year’s internship in Philadelphia, she returned home.
In 1889, she was 24. She could not vote and as an Indian, she could not call herself a citizen but she was a doctor.
Susan served as one of the reservation physicians. It was rare to be a Native American and a doctor. Susan was the first Native American Woman to hold the position.
She opened her office in the government boarding school. Tribe members filed in. So many insisted on seeing only Dr. Susan that the white male doctor quit. That made Susan the only physician for more than 1,300 people on a reservation stretching over 450 square miles. She became their doctor, their translator, lawyer, accountant, priest, and political liaison.
Susan made $500 per year and had to buy her own supplies when the Bureau of Indian Affairs ran out. She made another $250 per year from the Women’s National Indian Association for her work as a medical missionary.
At first she made house calls on foot, later on horseback, and still later in her buggy. She often encounter Omahas who rejected her diagnosis and her learning. Some rejected her care simply because of tensions created by her father.
For years this amazing Native American woman doctor fought epidemics of smallpox, influenza, and diphtheria. She got the Office of Indian Affairs to ban liquor sales within towns inside the reservation. She taught proper hygiene and encouraged the use of screen doors to keep out disease carrying flies. And she discouraged communal drinking cups, and the mescal used in religious ceremonies.
In poor health, she resigned in 1893 to recover and to care for her sick mother.
In 1894, Susan married Henry Picotte, a Yankton Sioux who worked with Wild West Shows. They moved to Bancroft, Nebraska where she set up a private practice. She served both white and non-white patients.
She had two sons whom she occasionally took with her on house calls.
My office hours are any and all hours of the day and night.Susan La Flesche Picotte
Her husband became an alcoholic and died of tuberculosis in 1905.
After her husband’s death, Susan and her sons moved to Walthil. There she resumed her efforts to improve the health and conditions of her people.
In 1906 she led a delegation to Washington, D.C., to lobby for prohibition of alcohol on the reservation.
Susan returned to Washington D.C. in 1910 to present an argument to the Office of Indian Affairs. She argued that most of the Omaha tribesmen could manage their own affairs but the Indian Office had stifled them to the point they could not protect themselves from fraud.
She continued to work with the tribe. Her dream was to build the first hospital on the reservation not funded by the government. And in 1913, that hospital opened its doors.
Death and Legacy
Susan La Flesche Picotte passed away on September 18, 1915.
After her death, they renamed the hospital Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital. It served patients for an additional thirty years, then closed its doors. It is now a museum and became a national historic landmark in 1993. They hold an annual festival there every year in her memory.
The society and government and conditions were against Susan LaFlesche Picotte. A strong woman, she became a doctor anyway. What amazing strength she had to spend her lifetime relentlessly fighting for better health and living conditions for her people. She was the Amazing First Native American Woman Doctor.